The Lady’s Not for Turning

by Corey Robin on April 8, 2013

To get a sense of why conservatives in Britain of a certain age revere Margaret Thatcher, check out this clip of her “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” speech at the Conservative Party Conference in October 1980.

The context (my apologies to the Brits in the audience; this stuff can be like ancient Greek to us Yanks): In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”

Fast forward to 1980: Thatcher had been in power for a year, and the numbers of unemployed were almost double that of the Heath years. Thatcher faced a similar call from the Tory “Wets” in her own party—conservatives who weren’t keen on her aggressive free-market counterrevolution—to do a U-Turn, and many expected she would. This was her response.

Conservative swooned: the political bravado, the literary panache of that Christopher Fry reference, the grand Fuck You to the trade unions, the Wets, the unemployed. It was almost too good to be true. When I interviewed libertarian political theorist Norman Barry—a member of the extended brain trust of the economic right in Britain—years later for an article I did for Lingua Franca, he had this to say about Thatcher:

I had thought she was just an election winner who wasn’t Labour. But when she lifted exchange controls, I thought, “This babe knows market economics.” So then I thought, “Yeah!” And then she began privatization and other things. And then she wouldn’t do a U-turn, I thought, “This is for real.”


On a different Thatcher note…

Two years ago, I wrote a post on Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is no such thing as society. The Left often gets that quote wrong, seeing it as a manifesto of untrammeled individualism.  It’s not, and our failure to understand what Thatcher really said makes it difficult to understand what neoliberalism is all about.

Here’s what I wrote in my post:

Left critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.


But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s OwnHere’s the buildup to that infamous quote:


Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…


It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial.  Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.


Thatcher isn’t alone in this.  For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim.  When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.  And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.


Here’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:


The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)


And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:


It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences.  The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.


I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about.  What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.


That post, as is, is clearly over-written. There are obviously strong individualist thrusts to neoliberalism and free-market economics, and a more considered effort to understand it would have to incorporate these thrusts. This post was merely my quick effort to restore some balance to our perception of those movements.

That said, there was one feudal dimension in Hayek’s thinking that I only glancingly referred to here and that I’d want to emphasize more. And that is his theory of the judiciary. Hayek really wasn’t a simple anti-statist. He envisioned a different kind of state. As he makes clear in both Constitution of Liberty and the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he imagines a state in which the legislature has a very small role to play but judges have a very large role to play. And not judges applying or construing statutory law, but judges applying some kind of common law, invoking its “spirit” to overturn anything in statutory law that they believe contradicts the eternal order of the law (individual parts of the law may evolve and change, but the larger order must remain).

If you read Karen Orren’s book, which I mention above, you’ll see that that the notion of the judiciary governing the workplace through its construing of common law — and being totally impervious to either the legislature or even the Constitution — is the essence of “belated feudalism” in America. It’s a holdover, she argues, of English medievalism, one that gets adapted and reinvented in the context of a thriving capitalist economy in the US. In other words, you have in 19th-century America a feudal workplace surrounded by a capitalist market—and that, of course, is on top of, and quite apart from, the intimate connections between slavery and capitalism in America. (If you want some specifics from Orren on the feudal workplace, check this out.)

According to Orren, it is that belated feudalism that the labor movement and the Wagner Act set out to overturn. If she’s right, neoliberalism might be seen as an effort to return to that kind of belated feudalism.

{ 26 comments }

1

Phil 04.08.13 at 8:56 pm

neoliberalism might be seen as an effort to return to that kind of belated feudalism

Only those strands of neoliberalism which grow out of an appreciation of the whole of Hayek’s thought, which I suspect is not all of them by some way.

2

Corey Robin 04.08.13 at 9:01 pm

True enough. Though don’t forget what Thatcher is supposed to have said/done: Slammed down a copy of The Constitution of Liberty on the table and declared, “This is what we believe.” And of course there is the whole Hayek/Pinochet connection, which others and I have examined in great detail elsewhere.

3

Barry 04.08.13 at 9:34 pm

Phil 04.08.13 at 8:56 pm

” Only those strands of neoliberalism which grow out of an appreciation of the whole of Hayek’s thought, which I suspect is not all of them by some way.”

What other strands are there? Real strands, not propaganda.
As far as I can tell, once you eliminated looting scum from neoliberalism, at best what is best is some useful idiots and ideologues.

4

rootlesscosmo 04.08.13 at 10:01 pm

When I was a local union officer (unpaid, not a functionary) on the railroad, I used to caution other rails that for most purposes “the Constitution stops at the property line.” They believed that they could assert a Fifth Amendment right to silence in disciplinary proceedings, and that something like the Equal Protection clause governed their day-to-day interactions with the company and were shocked when they found this wasn’t the case. (Whether this qualifies as feudalism I can’t say; I don’t remember actually paying homage to the Southern Pacific as its vassal, but it was a long time ago.) The standard explanation under NLRA and the Railway Labor Act is “employment at will,” subject only to explicit limits in the union contract (if any) and, as I say, explicit statutory limits on discrimination based on membership of “suspect classes” defined by race or gender.

5

Anderson 04.08.13 at 10:21 pm

They believed that they could assert a Fifth Amendment right to silence in disciplinary proceedings, and that something like the Equal Protection clause governed their day-to-day interactions with the company

They were very confused, then, since the Bill of Rights protects one vs. the government, not vs. one’s employer. I am not sure how people arrive at this mistake.

6

Phil 04.08.13 at 10:23 pm

Barry – I think “real” neoliberalism is whatever gets accepted as neoliberalism by people who call themselves neoliberals. More specifically, I think most neo-liberals are either short-term political operators who don’t worry too much about how things are actually going to work on the scale of society or true-believing ideologues who don’t think it’s a question worth worrying about. Hayek can rot in hell as far as I’m concerned, but he didn’t fall into either of those categories; he was a much more substantial figure than many (most?) of his avowed followers.

7

rootlesscosmo 04.08.13 at 10:43 pm

@Anderson: “Very confused” scarcely begins to describe the extent and depth of their false beliefs.

8

JW Mason 04.08.13 at 10:49 pm

there was one feudal dimension in Hayek’s thinking that I only glancingly referred to here and that I’d want to emphasize more. And that is his theory of the judiciary. Hayek really wasn’t a simple anti-statist. He envisioned a different kind of state. As he makes clear in both Constitution of Liberty and the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he imagines a state in which the legislature has a very small role to play but judges have a very large role to play. And not judges applying or construing statutory law, but judges applying some kind of common law, invoking its “spirit” to overturn anything in statutory law that they believe contradicts the eternal order of the law

The funny thing is that it’s the European project, that Thatcher was so opposed to, which is coming closest to realizing this vision. Leigh Phillips makes this point well.

9

Salient 04.08.13 at 10:57 pm

For those waiting with baited breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to.
1980, Margaret Thatcher

I’ll keep my God, guns and money… YOU can keep the CHANGE!
2000, Bumper Sticker

I won’t kill you. But I don’t have to save you.
2005, Batman

10

Pseudonymous McGee 04.08.13 at 11:43 pm

Sure, individuals+families takes in more than just individuals, but still falls far short of addressing issues arising from great overlapping groups of people, related and not, bound voluntarily to each other or not, in equal and unequal, reciprocal and non-reciprocal arrangements, the whole of which might be called “society”. I don’t see how Thatcher’s inclusion of families contradicts “myths” about the hyper-individualism of her worldview, at least insofar as such “myths” are accurate in the polarity (individualism not collectivism) and severity (a lot) they attribute to it.

Including families is a necessary but not sufficient condition for your ideology to not be considered asocial/antisocial fantasy.

11

Nick 04.09.13 at 12:38 am

I think Corey is on to something true in Hayek’s thinking but I am wondering if he is using ‘feudal’ as a bit of a ‘boo’ word where ‘polycentric’ could be suggested instead and evaluated on its merits. The multiple overlapping authorities of medieval england had some advantages over, for exampe, the ‘modern’ more centralised monarchies of France and Spain. For example, trial by jury was a feudal right that is often treated as at odds with rational administration. Thatcher herself unfortunately did not do much for localism or polycentralism in the UK.

12

Jeffrey Davis 04.09.13 at 1:06 am

Just families.

And armies.

13

rootlesscosmo 04.09.13 at 1:42 am

On reflection I’m not happy with “feudal” to characterize the typical US workplace. The whole structure that follows from “employment at will” is part of the free (in the 19th century liberal sense) labor market, in which the worker can leave the employer, or the employer discharge the worker, and no non-economic obligation (like the manorial obligations of landlord and tenant or the mutual obligations of vassal and liege, depending on whose definition of “feudal” you’re using) prevents them. The power imbalance between employer and worker (absent a union) may be as great as, or greater than, the imbalance in those earlier kinds of relations, but the relation itself isn’t a personal bond, it’s an economic contract. (Which is why the union’s primary role is to secure a collective contract that will partly equalize that imbalance.)
If the yardmaster told me I couldn’t get off the engine to go pee, I’d go anyway. If he wrote me up for discipline (unlikely since he would immediately become the butt of mockery in the terminal), the union would represent me at the hearing. For a serious rule violation I might be fired, but not before going through a lengthy process including two or three levels of appeal up through the Railway Labor Act mechanism.

14

Anarcho 04.09.13 at 1:33 pm

that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic…. For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim.

Actually, genuine libertarians (i.e., libertarian socialists, or anarchists) like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Berkman, Chomsky and Ward are all against hierarchical and undemocratic institutions (like private property, the capitalist firm, churches, the patriarchal family, etc.) precisely because they take liberty of the individual seriously. One exception is Proudhon, who made an exception for the patriarchal family while attacking private property, capitalism, churches, etc.

In other words, don’t let the right steal “libertarian” from the left. It was a communist-anarchist who coined the word “libertarian” in the 1850s. The right American started to appropriate the term in the 1950s (in spite of knowing it use):

150 years of Libertarian

Iain
An Anarchist FAQ

15

js. 04.09.13 at 4:43 pm

I don’t see how Thatcher’s inclusion of families contradicts “myths” about the hyper-individualism of her worldview

Leaving Thatcher herself aside, I’d think the idea is that in stressing individualism, neoliberalism wants to say that it rejects “natural hierarchies”, etc. But its endorsement of the traditional role of family within, umm, society(?) shows that it doesn’t.

16

john c. halasz 04.09.13 at 4:46 pm

Well, “society” is a rather notoriously difficult term to define. I always took Thatcher’s famous dictum to be an exercise in sheer nominalism: because there is not a thing to directly correspond to the word, that thing can not exist. But the missing link in such extreme individualism is “community”, (even if that word has become a slippery buzz-word nowadays, as in “business community” or “intelligence community”), rather than “family”, since it bridges the gap between private and public, and the denial of the publicness of power is very much the intended point.

As to Austrian economics, it’s important to remember that it was Austrian. The Anglophilic idealization goes together with living in a bureaucracy-ridden, highly hierarchical society: “free markets” as reactionary utopianism. (Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” was partly written as a polemic against the Austrian school, which he knew all too well, as a senior editor of the leading Viennese business journal).

17

Sev 04.09.13 at 7:29 pm

“the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state”

Thank god we’ve come a long way since then:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/25/nyregion/25courts.html?pagewanted=all

18

sophist75 04.10.13 at 1:41 am

“What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism… not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government… to the private authority of fathers and owners.”

If you read what Thatcher has to say a few lines on from her famous quote, it’s clear that she doesn’t dismiss the role of the state and “entitlements” entirely. What I think is crucial here is not just the shift of power from a public sphere to a private sphere, but the distinction between public and private itself as something which is essential to the neo-liberal project.

Jacques Rancière in Hatred of Democracy notes that political domination of the neo-liberal sort involves both a depoliticization of social issues by shunting them into the private sphere (i.e. wages, employment, education, housing, etc.become the responsibility of individuals, families, private contracts etc.), and the phony purification of private interest from the public sphere. The public sphere then becomes a restricted space “reserved for the play of institutions and the monopoly of those who work them to their advantage” (p. 57). For all the rhetoric of the right, the public sphere is in fact a crucial component of the neo-liberal enterprise, as a space within which elite institutions and corporations can operate under state protection, shielded from commercial competition and other pressures. Everything from the expansion of the military-industrial complex, to the “too big to fail” bail out of the banks is justified in the name of the public interest, all the better to secure and enrich the centres of oligarchic power.

19

Sebastian H 04.11.13 at 7:47 am

Wouldn’t it be more fair her argument to use the whole quote?

“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

20

Phil 04.11.13 at 8:18 am

In other words, to the extent that poverty and avoidable suffering are a problem, the problem can – and should – be solved by individual charity. Not only was there no role for an enabling state in her thinking; there was no concept of the kind of responsibilities held by society as a whole which are generally exercised through the state.

21

Gareth Wilson 04.11.13 at 9:42 am

Those “responsibilities” can get pretty broad, though. Like oh, paying taxes to subsidise coal mines that will never be profitable. I suppose you could see it as government-funded performance art, although it would have been safer not to use real coal…

22

Phil 04.11.13 at 10:14 am

Or you could look at the numbers – as Andrew Glyn did at the time – and compare the total costs of open pits with those of closed pits. The money paid out in wages was taxed; most of the rest would be spent, stimulating economic activity and bringing in more tax revenue at the point of purchase; the coal itself would obviate the need for expensive investment in alternative sources of energy; and then there are all the other (costly) things which people don’t tend to do when they’re in secure jobs, e.g. fall ill, get depressed, drink heavily, turn to crime, commit suicide, etc.

In any case, the attack on the miners was never about economic rationality. We have it from the horse’s mouth: when Thatcher looked at the NUM she saw “the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty”.

23

Salient 04.11.13 at 10:24 am

In other words, to the extent that poverty and avoidable suffering are a problem, the problem can – and should – be solved by individual charity.

Yeah, see, this is disgusting; it’s nothing more than valuating solving the plight of the rich (having some stuff taken from you / not having complete control over your stuff) above solving the plight of the poor (not having enough stuff), by insisting the latter problem should not be solved at the expense of the former. That’s the direction and form of the sympathy in her full statement. Reminds me of an otherwise-inexplicable bumper sticker that’s pretty popular around here, “MY GOD DOES NOT NEED GOVERNMENT HELP.” (Godly people should probably help the poor… but absolutely not in ways that raise my taxes.)

24

Phil 04.11.13 at 11:25 am

Salient – did you know her take on the Good Samaritan? “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” Corollary: if you haven’t got money (to spare), you can pass by on the other side with your good intentions intact.

“MY GOD DOES NOT NEED GOVERNMENT HELP.”

If the Good Lord had wanted people not to be poor…

25

Gareth Wilson 04.11.13 at 6:45 pm

OK, you’ve convinced me. Unprofitable coal mines are beneficial to society, and none of them should have ever been closed. But it would be an amazing coincidence if the number of pits open in 1979 was exactly optimal for British society. So how many new pits should the government have opened?

26

Tim Wilkinson 04.11.13 at 8:53 pm

Phil 22: That 2nd para about the Miners’ strike is sounding dangerously conspiracist. I’m sure Derrida derider can offer a post-structuralist ‘explanation’ of the events, whatever one of those is. If so, that should of course be preferred because mumble.

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